Big, bulky, black smoke spewing machines. That’s what most transport ships are today. Responsible for at least 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, these diesel gobblers have long stayed under the radar of entrepreneurs and regulators alike. But times are changing.

Artist impression of Port Liners fully electric barge (photo: Alexander Whiteman)

With prices of lithium ion batteries having dropped a dazzling 73% since 2010, it is not a big surprise that eventually someone would get the idea to swap the combustion engine of ships for an electric motor. That someone was Ton van Meegen from the Dutch shipbuilding company Port Liner.

Port Liner is building eleven ships for inland shipping on canals and in harbors in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a world’s first supported by a 7 million euros European grant. The harbour of Antwerp also offered financial support because the project fits into their strategy to take polluting trucks from the Belgian roads. According to their spokesperson, the first five ships will avoid 23000 truck rides a day. Everyone who ever drove around in my little country (or rather, spent most of the time stuck in a traffic jam) will confirm that is a very, very good idea.

The first five ships are a smaller model, measuring 52 meters in length. They can store 24 20-feet containers or 425 tonnes of bulk load like iron pipes or gravel. The electric motor does not need a machine room, saving 8% space compared to a diesel ship of similar dimensions.

A typical inland barge. Let’s hope the electric versions won’t transport coal, that would be quite ironic.

The ships are equipped with a battery pack that is housed in, what did you expect, a container. Good for 15 hours of cruising, the batteries can either be charged at charging points installed on docks, or be swapped with a charged one waiting in the harbour. In that case, no time is lost with charging. The six larger ships measuring 110 meters will boast a battery good for 35 hours of juice.

Clearly, those battery capacities do not suffice for the long distance cargo transport that brings us bananas and kiwis. Port Liner aims at inland cargo transport on canals and rivers, and transport of goods between the neighbouring harbours of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Antwerp. For long trips around the globe, electrification will not be realistic anytime soon. The next best option there is to use hydrogen as a fuel.

That, by no means, implies Port Liner’s electric ships are irrelevant. Europe alone counts about 7000 inland barges. With some waterways crossing straight through densely populated cities, a clean alternative to the diesel spewing ships is more than welcome. That is, if the batteries have been charged with carbon free electricity. This has been confirmed for Port-Liner’s first contract. It seems they did their job well. Lovely. When I tell you the ships are also ready for autonomous navigation, you must agree the title ‘Tesla of ships’ is not too far-fetched.